Ready, Set, Research

July 10, 2015

Rosalind Black

Students and a professor in a lab

This summer, Oberlin will see the first session of the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation (STRONG) Program, created by Director of Undergraduate Research Afia Ofori-Mensa and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren. Inspired by a similar program at Hamilton College, Ofori-Mensa and Elgren have been working since November 2014 to create a program that gives students of color, Pell-eligible students, women, and first-generation college students the chance to gain research experience and receive mentorship from professors and peers before they enter college.

According to Ofori-Mensa, initial grades in introductory classes often deter underrepresented and first-generation college students from pursuing a planned major in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field, but studies show that joining a research team in the years of college increases the likelihood of students persisting in STEM fields. When speaking with some undergraduate research fellows recently, Ofori-Mensa says the students told her that engaging in undergraduate research had also improved their approach to the rest of their academic pursuits, positively affecting their performance in other classes. “There are ways that the opportunity to pursue something that was of unique interest to them had the result of engaging them with all of their schoolwork in a different way than before,” she explains.

Additionally, students from these populations who persisted in a STEM-related major informed Ofori-Mensa that having connections with their peers, especially those with similar experiences, can be very helpful. Developing relationships with faculty members also provides the makings of a strong support system for incoming students. Faculty mentors “teach you things that maybe it didn’t occur to you that you needed to learn,” Ofori-Mensa says. “They have your back in various ways throughout college and beyond.”

These findings informed the decision to add the STRONG Program to the list of those administered by the Office of Undergraduate Research. It joins the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Oberlin College Research Fellows Program in supporting Pell-eligible students, students of color, and first-generation college students, who wish to participate in research. However, STRONG focuses on making opportunities available before students begin their first year at Oberlin, “giving those populations a chance to acclimate to some of the challenging aspects of the college environment, perhaps in a region different than where they grew up,” Ofori-Mensa says. “It gives them time to form connections early on in their career here that will support them throughout their time at Oberlin.”

This year, 11 incoming first-years will participate in the program. Before arriving, students rank the available projects based on descriptions provided by the faculty members involved. A selection committee, in consultation with those faculty members, then decide which research groups students will be the best fit based on the students’ interests and skill sets. The STRONG scholars will arrive the weekend of July 4 and stay for four weeks, working directly with the faculty leader of the research group in which they were placed, along with the undergraduate research team also working in the lab. To give the students extra preparation for the upcoming school year, Ofori-Mensa and other staff members will run workshops covering study skills, math skills, and data collection and processing skills.

Participants in the STRONG Program will live together in Allencroft, or Russian House, during the summer and continue on through their first year in Third World House, with a residential assistant creating programming specifically for them. Along with Mellon Mays and Oberlin College Research fellows, who will also be conducting research on campus over the summer, STRONG students will take part in community-building activities as part of the Oberlin Summer Research Institute (OSRI), run by Ofori-Mensa and Marcelo Vinces, director of the Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR).

OSRI offers a series of professional development and community building workshops and activities. The workshops deal with a range of subjects related to conducting and presenting research, from structuring academic arguments to career development. The staff of OSRI also organizes events such as blueberry picking, trips to Kreig’s Frozen Custard, a day at Cedar Point, attending Oberlin Summer Theater Festival performances, and an OSRI-wide talent show. At the end of the summer, STRONG scholars will also be able to attend the research presentations of Mellon Mays and Oberlin College Research Fellows.

Funded by the Office of the President and gifts from alumni, the program pays scholars $2,000 for their work in their faculty mentor’s lab to offset the cost to scholars of losing time that could be spent working a summer job. The program also covers the cost of housing, dining, social activities, and travel to and from Oberlin. Scholars will also receive an award that will go toward the cost of their textbooks for their first year.

The STRONG Program takes students through the entire process of researching, from learning basic skills to putting together posters and presenting research. They will then be able to show their work at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research October 2, 2015. STRONG scholars also have the opportunity to rejoin their faculty mentor’s lab for winter term during their first year, if they so choose.

Ofori-Mensa says she does not expect the number of students admitted to STRONG to increase substantially in coming years because she believes a small cohort size is beneficial, allowing for more one-on-one relationships to develop with both peers and faculty. However, more and more faculty and staff have expressed interest in contributing skills and resources for the program’s use. “As I’m in touch with more people, I think the program really has the opportunity to grow insofar as the richness of the programming that we can offer to students.”

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